A Lit Review or Literature Review is a list, synopsis, and synthesis (review) of previous research conducted by scholars on any given topic. Lit reviews define the issues surrounding a subject, and let researchers know whether a particular issue has already been studied by someone else.
Up until the expansion of the internet into the research sphere researchers had a set methodology. They would find a recent article or book on their topic, and then study the references section to trace that source’s sources, and then go to the new sources and do the same thing. The result would be a kind of family tree, where ideas could be traced back to their original source.
This was useful for highlighting the most influential ideas in a field, especially if not many scholars had worked on that particular topic. However, it could miss vital sources if the topics did not quite match up, and often missed the most recent sources.
Today, internet-savvy researchers use online databases to look for sources instead. Some databases are subscriber-only (most famously WebofScience) but this is not necessarily a problem for independent researchers, since there are also public access databases (like Google Scholar, shown in the picture above). Some articles in obscure, paper-only journals are still likely to be missed, but other kinds of research are better catered to. These databases also show research across disciplines, meaning that Lit Reviews written today are more comprehensive and better informed.
The perfect Lit Review
Here are the steps scholars take to write the perfect Lit Review:
1. Create a list of references based on searching academic databases. Ideally you will want to search more than one of the following: JStor, Google Scholar, Google Books, WebofScience, Scopus, PubMed.
2. For each item on the list, give a very brief explanation – What is the methodology? What are the sources of information? Note which items seem to be cited the most often by other sources.
3. Synopsise the most important sources in depth. For a typical 2,000 word Lit Review you will need to study least five sources like this, you may need significantly more for the most popular topics. Consider: What are the main findings of each source? Are they convincing? Have they been influential?
4. Synthesise the sources by comparing and contrasting them. Think about: Which is the best source and why? How do the sources differ in their approach to the topic?
Sometimes Lit Reviews are published, but more generally they just form backgrounds to longer papers, dissertations and books.
Ready to give it a go? At the Academy for Distance Learning, our Academic Writing module allows you to write a basic Lit Review and turn it into a professional essay. You can write on the topic of your choice from the comfort of your home. The module is just £35 for three lessons and assignments with unlimited online tutor support.
Google Scholar is a great way to create references